It is fairly amazing what one can deduce about planets orbiting distant stars. A new paper by Peter Buhler et al reports constraints on the rigidity of the hot-Jupiter exoplanet HAT-P-13b.
The essential data comes from an observation of the occultation of the planet (when it passes behind the host star), as observed in infra-red light by the Spitzer Space Telescope.
If the planet’s orbit were exactly circular the occultation would occur exactly half a cycle after the transit. But this occultation is 20 minutes early. That means that the orbit is slightly elliptical, amounting to an eccentricity of 0.007 +/– 0.001, a small but non-zero value.
Most hot Jupiters are expected to have orbits which have been completely circularised by tidal forces. Thus an eccentric orbit implies either that the planet has only relatively recently moved into that orbit, or that the eccentricity is being maintained by the gravitational effects of a third body.
In this case another planet, HAT-P-13c, a 14-Jupiter-mass planet in a longer 446-day orbit, is thought to be perturbing the close-in hot Jupiter HAT-P-13b.
The extent of the perturbation then tells us about the rigidity of the hot Jupiter. Tidal forces result from the fact that gravity differs across an extended body such as a planet, and how a planet reacts to the tidal stress depends on its rigidity.
The rigidity is parametrised by the “Love number”, and the authors find that the eccentricity of HAT-P-13b’s orbit implies a Love number of 0.3. This in turn implies that the planet likely has a rocky core of about 11 Earth masses, with the rest being an extended gaseous envelope.